Saberhagen, Fred – Lost Swords 05 – Coinspinners Story

In addition to these figures, the cycle seen by the old magician sometimes included the dread image of Wood, appearing now as a blond, handsome demigod, armed with Shieldbreaker.

I had not realized, thought Karel, that I feared my great enemy as much as that, for the Sword of Stealth to limn him for me. . . But he had not stopped to admire the images created by Sightblinder. He suddenly did not feel well. That was why he had come to a halt, leaning back against a wall, knowing that he must look uncharacteristically weary.

And now he understood why.

“Rostov,” he said. “Get those two other men in here. The animals also.”

The General gestured quickly to his sergeant before he asked the question. “What’s wrong?”

“Plenty.” Karel’s breath was wheezing loudly now. “There’s demon-smell and demon-sickness in the air. You’ll be able to feel it in a minute. Wood is striking at us.”

Murat and Kebbi exchanged uncertain glances.

“I mean the man,” said Karel, looking at the renegade lieutenant, “who took your Sword from you. He goes armed with a greater weapon, Shieldbreaker. And he comes now escorted by a flight of his great pets. It will be all we can do to escape him with our lives.”

The soldiers who had been left outside came into the Temple now, leading the riding-beasts.

Rostov, cursing, threw Sightblinder from him, in that instant resuming his own shape in the others’ eyes. “If he has Shieldbreaker, this blade of mine is not going to avail us anything. But we know how to fight against the Sword of Force. What do you say, Karel? I’ll tackle him barehanded, magician, if you can undertake to keep his bodyguard from killing me as I do so.”

Karel shook his head. “I fear his bodyguard, as you call it, is much too strong. He is coming after us in force, with such an escort as would make any pledge of that kind on my part foolish. If worst comes to worst we may have to adopt some such plan, but before we settle for suicide let’s try to get away. I hope we can make our escape in a direction that will allow us to continue our search for the Prince.”

Murat was beginning to feel the demon-sickness now, deep in his guts. He’d heard of such but not experienced it before. He could tell from the faces of Kebbi and the soldiers that they were afflicted too.

“I think we can escape, but we may well be separated in the process. Before we are-” Karel dipped a hand into an inner pocket, then pushed himself away from the wall.

Moving swiftly among the other members of the party, he handed each man a small object. “Each of you is now in possession of a magical token that will allow you to identify Prince Adrian if you come within sight of him. It should also serve to show you where to seek the Prince, once you are close enough.”

Murat looked at the thing that had been placed in his hand. It was a tiny wooden cube.

Karel observed his puzzled look. “Part of a toy the Prince enjoyed in infancy,” the wizard wheezed. “Trust me, trust the power I have given it.”

Murat could feel the heaviness in his soles and ankles. He did not doubt this wizard’s pledges.

Rostov stuffed his own bit of toy impatiently into his belt. He was not yet ready to give up on fighting. “What if we leave the Swords out of it entirely, wizard? And if the demons could be distracted. Could you stand against him then?”

“Stand against him, one on one? No, I cannot.” Karel’s face and voice were bleak. “No magician in the world, I think, can do that. . . and besides, I tell you that he does come with a host of demons. We must escape him, if we can. Here.”

With a gesture, and a twist of magic, Karel did something to the wall beside him. Murat could not see just what, but whatever was done caused several stones to vanish, or move aside, opening a way into some inner recess of the Temple.

“Animals can’t follow us in here, sir,” the sergeant reported. Even if the newly opened entrance had been big enough, the dark passage beyond it certainly was not.

“Then leave them! Too bad, but it must be.”

In a few moments the men were all inside what Murat took to be a kind of secret passage, a dimly lit narrow tunnel through constricting brickwork. They were following Karel through this, at a surprisingly swift pace, when the assault of Wood’s creatures came down on them all, almost unexpectedly.

This was no mere whiff of demonic presence at a distance, but the awful thing itself. The attack fell first upon the mind and soul, rather than the body. Despite the fact that the physical masonry around him remained firmly in place, Murat had the sensation that the world was collapsing over his head.

Even worse was the inward sickness, taking possession of the bowels and bones. A fear that seemed to turn the guts to jelly . . .

The men were crawling now, rather than walking, with Karel still in the lead. The magician was muttering continuously, and it seemed that somehow he was managing to stave off complete disaster. The terrible enemy was near, but not immediately upon them.

And now the pressure of demonic presence eased a bit. Somehow, Murat thought, the old man’s got them looking in the wrong place for us. So far …

He kept on crawling, over the body of one of the troopers, totally collapsed. The man was dead, Murat was sure of that, for he could see the flesh already shriveling, as if being dried out from within.

Another trooper died as they crawled on. Wood’s onslaught came near overwhelming Karel’s defenses before the Tasavaltan could guide his friends to a yet more interior level of the Twisted Temple.

When the attack of the demons first fell on them, Kebbi, two places behind his countryman in the single line, thought that his last moment had come. But in his desperation he refused to give up. Rather, Kebbi took the opportunity which presented itself, and lunged out in an effort at escape. When the wizard led them past a place where the tunnel branched, Kebbi with a gasp turned aside, and flung himself down the branch Karel and the others had not followed.

Crawling farther, he realized with a sudden surge of hope that the bond of magic that Karel had put on him had somehow been broken. The pain he had known in legs and ankles, which had increased so rapidly whenever he had distanced himself even slightly from his captors, was gone now. Karel’s binding work had been dissolved, or else abandoned in the wizard’s need to channel all his powers into the giants’ conflict that now raged between him and Wood. The energy that had maintained the Culmians’ bondage was doubtless needed elsewhere now, as the great magician fought against a greater, for his life, and the lives of his companions.

Crawling and scrambling, realizing that the physical destruction around him was actually negligible, and that the demons’ attention must all be focused elsewhere, Murat’s cousin got away.

Murat, as soon as he became aware that Kebbi was no longer with the survivors of the party, started grimly back into the tunnel after him. Karel, Rostov, and the troopers had all collapsed, and no one tried to stop him. If the traitor should be lying somewhere, dead and shriveled, well and good. But if he had somehow got away . . .

The Crown Prince had not gone far before he too realized that he was now freed of Karel’s magical bondage.

Sensing that he was gradually leaving the battle between the demons and the magician farther and farther behind him, Kebbi kept on crawling until he saw a light.

Rostov was the first of the remaining members of the party to regain his senses. Finding himself stretched out in a small, almost lightless underground room, Sightblinder clutched in his fist, he cursed and forced himself to his feet. There was one doorway besides the one through which they had stumbled in.

Karel and the four remaining troopers were sprawled around him, all still breathing, but in various stages bordering on complete collapse. The General tried to rouse the wizard, but the old man remained practically inert; naturally the assault had fallen heaviest of all on him.

It was only at this point that Rostov realized that his two Culmian prisoners were gone.

The prostrate men seemed to be recovering, though very slowly, and none of them were able to stand unaided yet. There was nothing for the General to do but exercise patience, and in that art he had had long training. The demons were gone, and in half an hour, Rostov thought, his party might be able to get moving again.

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